Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Happy Birthday Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó
In 1966, Mao swam the Yangtze River with thousands of people, burnishing his image which age and error had tarnished. My friend Neil said all the swimmers were in formation spelling out an insult (you guess which one a teenage weisenheimer would have used) in Chinese. So the Fourth of July comes on September 30, in the Chinese calendar, and today is the sixtieth one, the anniversary of the rebirth of non-colonial China. The leader of the revolution that formed the People’s Republic of China was Mao Zedong.
Mao was an educated man, although he never became fluent in Mandarin, born about the same time as Georgia O’Keefe, Humphrey Bogart, and my maternal grandparents. He became a Communist around 1920, and rose and consolidated power, not scrupling at murder or torture, within the party, warring for control of the China with the Nationalist or Kuomintang Party, led by Chiang Kai-Shek even while fighting to expel the Japanese during World War II. He was an autocrat and tyrant, but must have believed in the rights of common people on some level.
Mao’s naivete and recklessness manifested itself most violently in two events that each lingered over several years, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.
The Great Leap Forward was a period from 1958 to 1961, in which the People’s Republic tried to increase steel and grain production to world class levels, using backyard smelters to recycle tools into pig iron, and experimental, mistaken farming techniques to boost agricultural yield. In the course of the Great Leap, non-engineers and non-agronomists like Mao made planning decisions, farmers were diverted from fields to steel mills that had no hope of turning out good steel, sparrows populations were exterminated, allowing locusts to devastate crops, officials lied about yields, China exported what it needed to eat to save Mao’s face, and ten to twenty-five million died.
Mao originated the Cultural Revolution in a political struggle with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. After the disastrous Great Leap Forward, Liu, the Republic’s Chairman, and Deng, the General Secretary of the government bureaucracy, instituted pragmatic reforms, and put Mao out to pasture. Mao’s comeback was directed at Liu and Deng, and was a real thought-police kind of operation, aimed at purity in politics, economics, ideas, and organization. Reformers and intellectuals were portrayed as capitalists and bourgeois. Even in his forced retirement, Mao was a political figurehead, and a popular character. While the baby boom generation in places like France, Czechoslovakia, and the United States followed its own rebellious and independent noses, Mao was able to harness the Chinese manifestation to his ends.
The Red Guards were young civilians who dedicated themselves to preserving the Communist Revolution. They meant to root out old capitalism, religion, Confucianism, and old ideas customs habits and culture. If you were educated, and the Revolution was new, you were educated in what they wanted to root. They smashed antiquities, and sent intellectuals to the country to hoe turnips and get re-educated.
Mao was an evil doofus.
The fact that someone’s attempts at righting a wrong is cruel perverse or corrupt, does not mean there’s no problem, or discredit other tries at fixing things.
It wasn’t only Mao’s face that was at stake with the Great Leap, China was alternately vilified and condescended to by the capitalist world. Millions had died by famine less than twenty years before the Great Leap. China had been victimized by colonists including the British -- who had used military force to open Chinese markets to opium within living memory -- and the Japanese. Mao believed that it would be necessary to establish a certain level of wealth before true reform would be possible. The Great Leap Forward can also be seen as the beginning of women’s rights in China, bringing an end to child marriage and foot binding as well as allowing women to sue for divorce. How meaningful and inspiring it would have been to be one of the team of amateurs who levered a peasant backwater to world prominence. Would that the plan came from somebody with a clue, but we're familiar here with people who try to enforce what they'd like to be true.
The Cultural Revolution raised at least one question that still lingers: “How many peasant years does it take to educate one intellectual?” China needed educated people, engineers, doctors, even lawyers, in order to industrialize. Coming out of poverty and colonization, a huge population concentrated on scant productive land, China bought the professionals' educations with toil. Sweat equity. The perspirers and their supporters naturally saw any sense of entitlement among the educated as a foreshortened view of the arrangement.
For our part, anti-Communism, xenophobia, and knee-jerk libertarianism blinded the children of capitalism to anything but China's failure and provincialism. Americans who waved Mao's little red book around were branded as nuts, and often were. What we -- or our parents -- missed were China's just refusal of foreign exploitation, the real physical and social problems it was trying to solve, and the kernel of wisdom that the insanity hid.